By Elle Muirhead
The cookbook was published in August and focuses on the culinary similarities between Indian and Southern culture.
Bhatt was born in Gujarat, India, but has lived most of his life in the American South. His experience of “being brown in the South” involved a lifetime full of the age-old question “Where are you from?” His answer is always, “I am from here”—the source of his cookbook title.
“Are we Indians who work in the South, or are we Southerners who happen to be of Indian descent?” asked Bhatt at the SouthTalks Brown Bag Lecture for the Center for the Study of Southern Culture last week. “My overwhelming notion for myself is that I am a Southerner who happens to be of Indian descent.”
And according to Bhatt, the two cultures have more culinary similarities than most realize. The dishes in the cookbook, like okra chaat or punjabi style fried catfish, combine unique ingredients that are prominent in both Southeast Asian and Southern cuisine.
Bhatt says the foods many think are strictly Southern or strictly Indian, like rice, okra, tomatoes, peas, beans or peanuts, are actually universal. And regardless of whether it’s served in Ahmedabad or Oxford, food and gathering go hand in hand.
“I realized food was one thing that connected us more than a lot of other things did,” said Bhatt. “And then I also realized that the South—the way of eating, sharing, and the hospitality of folks, this idea that food is central to a gathering—all those things were things that I had grown up with, too.”
Jeffery Grimes, the hospitality director for City Grocery Restaurant Group—the parent company of Snackbar, where Bhatt started as a prep cook in the late 1990s—has worked alongside Bhatt since August 2014. He says that Bhatt’s approach to merging cuisines from different cultures has made many in the Oxford community feel more at home.
“I think what Chef has been trying to do is say, ‘Hey, we use the same spices. We have the same produce. You may call it ‘this’ and they may call it ‘that’, but we are the same,’” said Grimes. “In doing so [he] brings a community together… It’s become the neighborhood restaurant and people’s living room.”
The “living room” feeling is an important part of Snackbar and Bhatt’s culinary inspiration, something he got to experience again for the first time in two years on his book tour, which took him to cities such as Chicago and New Orleans. According to Bhatt, sitting, conversing and sharing meals with other chefs is one of his favorite parts of traveling because of the wealth of culinary knowledge that can be found over a conversation and a meal.
“I had some really great meals on this trip,” said Bhatt. “And it was really good because, in every case [on the book tour], we would pull up a chair, sit down, have a glass of wine. it was very much centered around meeting with my friends and family again.”
Bhatt says the time spent away from Oxford rekindled his love for the city and his excitement for what’s to come in the wake of the cookbook’s publication.
“Traveling always gets me excited [to cook] because I get to see and taste things that I haven’t in a long time,” said Bhatt. “I tend to get, like most people who are in one place for a long time, tunnel vision, because you’re just doing what you’re doing here. I am comfortable with it and I stay with it, so it’s nice to get out and be pushed a little bit out of my comfort zone.”
Even in his absence, Bhatt says the cuisine of Snackbar has flourished. Sous Chef Kate Marshall created the new Snackbar menu, which features dishes such as pickled shrimp and confit duck wing, while he was away—a testament to Bhatt’s teaching and impact on those under his wing.
Meghan Anderson is now the operations manager for City Grocery Restaurant Group but was an oyster shucker under Bhatt at Snackbar when it opened. Over the years, she has grown to regard him as a dear friend and mentor. She says that his willingness to teach and share his love of food with others, as exemplified in his cookbook, is something special that has helped grow Snackbar into what it is today.
“The history and experience that is shared with each ingredient and each recipe make this book so much more than just food,” Anderson said.
“The artistry and love that he puts into each word and each bite is extremely evident as I flip through each page.”
To promote the release of the book, Snackbar started featuring a “Cookbook Special” on Wednesday nights, where the chefs chose a recipe out of Bhatt’s cookbook to serve for the evening. This has since expanded to include chef favorites from other cookbooks as well, such as “Pickles, Pigs and Whiskey” by chef John Currence. As a result, the culture of Snackbar continues to provide a “home” in its cuisine for the diverse community of Oxford—much like “I Am From Here.”
“To me, [“I Am From Here”] represents home,” said Anderson. “We all find our home in various stages of our lives, and our homes may change over the years, but to use food and our tables to bring together our families, both born and chosen, means that we have an inescapable responsibility to welcome all people into our homes and share our lives to make a better world.
“Chef Bhatt does that every day, and with this book, he’s helping teach us how to do that, too.”